Frosts, heatwaves and wildfires: the climate crisis is hitting the wine industry hard

Summer 2020 was a rough year for Hope Well Wine’s owner, Mimi Casteel. Wildfires spread throughout Oregon, not far from land that she leased to grow more than 20 acres of grapes. The smoke was so bad she had to disable the fire alarms in her home. A gray cloud loomed in the distance for days.

“The fires were not super close but were severe enough, burned long enough that we were in very thick smoke for more than a week,” Casteel said. At the time she was selling about 80% of the fruit she grew but last year’s wildfire caused smoke taint – where grapes absorb smoke, affecting the quality of wine they produce. She lost all of her big clients, she said – “they walked out on their contracts”. Casteel had no smoke insurance to cover these losses, which she estimated to amount to about $300,000.

In the 1960s, when Oregon’s wine industry started to grow significantly, the historically temperate state seemed like the ideal place for growing grapes for a variety of wines, such as chardonnay and pinot noir. Maar, said Casteel, “almost as soon as that identity was starting to be recognized … we were facing a loss of that”. The impacts of the climate crisis are making the industry much more precarious.

The total area burned during the 2020 wildfire season was among the largest in Oregon’s recorded history, according to the Oregon climate assessment published in January. The report projected that temperatures would continue to increase and wildfires would get bigger.

It’s a story that’s playing out globally. Grapes for wine making are grown across the world including countries in Europe, South America and Africa. But as the climate crisis intensifies – bringing increasingly severe wildfires, warmer summers, milder winters as well as unpredictable frosts and rainfall – it is changing wine production.

Grapes are among the most sensitive crops to climate changes. For some producers, warming temperatures have been advantageous, at least in the short term. Changing rain patterns, earlier springs and droughts are starting to push wine production towards the poles. There are vineyards as far north as Norway’s Flatdal region. And vineyards in countries such as Engeland have been thriving as Europe experiences warming temperatures.

Egter, for many wine growers the climate crisis is making life much harder. If temperatures rise too quickly, grapes will ripen faster than usual affecting the flavor of the wine. If temperatures plunge, it can devastate vineyards – destroying buds, reducing yield and even killing the vines. Premium grapes for high end wine, in die besonder, flourish in a very narrow range of weather conditions.

Nenad Trifunović, the director of business development at Croatian wine and beer retailer The Wine & Meer, said making wine is part of his region’s cultural heritage – the Balkan peninsula has been producing wine for meer as 2,000 jare. Growers used to rely on regular seasonal changes and rainfall patterns but that’s changed, Trifunović said. This past summer countries across the Balkan peninsula, including Croatia, experienced heatwaves that lasted longer than they have historically.

The climate crisis will also increase the frequency of droughts in Croatia, according to a 2021 studeer, which Trifunović says is a challenge as growers in the country scramble to work around changing precipitation patterns. “Even the oldest of vineyards are struggling with an abundance of heat and lack of rain," hy het gesê.

Diana Snowden Seysses is based in Burgundy, one of France’s most well-known wine growing regions, where she works with her father-in-law making wine at Domaine Dujac. Her family also owns and runs Snowden Wines in Napa Valley. Laas jaar, her family’s vineyard in California lost about half of its production to smoke taint caused by wildfires in the area. And producers in Burgundy saw an early spring that was followed by unseasonable frosts that damaged grapes on the vine. Domaine Dujac also lost some of its grape crop to the frost.

Wine production in France is expected to drop by amper 30% hierdie jaar. Snowden Seysses estimated that some of the vineyards around her lost about half of their grapes to the frost. The frost was “an agricultural disaster [and a] natural disaster”, sy het gese, byvoeging: “So it’s not just heat; it’s erratic weather patterns”.

Winemakers in the region are considering making changes in how they work with vines in the hope of saving future harvests, said Snowden Seysses. She described how some growers let a long shoot grow on the vine and once growers know that spring has officially started and the frost won’t come back, the top of the shoot is cut off. This method can slow down the vine’s growth so that fewer potential buds are lost to the frost.

Snowden Seysses also said that Domaine Dujac is looking to plant fruit trees to provide better shade and humidity to protect grapes during unseasonably hot days, but there are challenges to implementing that method.

'[Burgundy’s] vineyards are Unesco protected,” said Snowden Seysses. “We have to ask for authorization for every single tree because it was not there before the Unesco protection. But historically there were fruit trees.”

In Oregon, Casteel has changed her setup, ook. She has downsized the vineyard to only two and a half acres to ensure that the work needed to grow and then harvest the grapes can be done quickly. She has also invested in smoke insurance. After seeing how vulnerable pinot noir grapes are to smoke taint, Casteel plans to turn her efforts towards white wine varieties. “The scale of the business is just altogether much smaller," sy het gese.

Climate focused wine groups have sprung up in recent years to help producers in the industry navigate climate issues. Die Porto Protocol, an international non-profit that aims to make the wine industry more sustainable, gives its members access to resources for tackling climate problems. Members can also learn from others, said Marta Mendonça, the manager at Porto Protocol. Those living in areas which have long experienced dry seasons and water scarcity, byvoorbeeld, can advise on irrigation methods or varieties of grapes that can thrive with less precipitation.

“There is no time nor resources to lose when it comes to fighting climate change. We have to fight as an industry collectively and collaboratively,” Mendonça said.

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